Quick Shifts: What the Maple Leafs do better than anyone

Toronto's backup loosens up for a big toe save, Talbot gets out of trouble with his glove while Lindgren and Gillies come up with some desperation stops.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. The Toronto Maple Leafs don’t sit atop the National Hockey League in any of the major team categories, but there is something they do better than their 30 counterparts — and they don’t even know it.

Of the 2,171 shots on goal Toronto has taken this season, their average shot distance from the net is 33.7 feet, the closest of all 31 clubs.

“That’s an interesting stat,” says Patrick Marleau.

“I didn’t know that,” says Mitchell Marner.

“Huh. No, I wasn’t aware of that one,” says James van Riemsdyk.

A major contributor to that cozy shot distance is tips. Toronto’s players crash the net like fancy weddings and stir up traffic like the Gardiner just closed.

The Maple Leafs have tipped a NHL-best 200 shots on net and are tied for the fourth-most tip-in goals with 27.

“You look at different ways guys are scoring. That seems to be the way that pucks go in. A lot of guys try to get to the net, and you have to battle for those tips and loose pucks,” Marleau says. “It’s one of those things happening all around the league. That’s an interesting stat. It is something we talk about–trying to get pucks to the net and guys in front, so obviously you’ll get some tips and rebounds.”

The 20-season veteran spends a chunk of time before practice wraps with his feet in the slot, his back to the net and his face pointed at Jake Gardiner or Roman Polak’s blade, tipping point shot after point shot on an empty cage.

“If you can get in sync with one of the D-men who knows where you’re going to go and what you’re looking for — and you get used to their shot, too, in practice — that makes it easier in games,” Marleau explains. “It’s become something people look for more as opposed to years past.”

It’s not that the Leafs are under a mandate to hold off on shooting before they get in the home plate area, Nazem Kadri says. It’s more about crowding the goaltender and pouncing on the juicy garbage that chaos offers.

“There are six goalies out there. Everybody is trying to block a shot, and it’s so hard to get pucks on net,” Kadri says. “You gotta be able to have guys around the area and maybe shoot a little bit wide and deflect pucks on net. I think that’s how the game is trending.”

Survey the room. The Leafs’ most generous tipper, most agree, is van Riemsdyk (although van Riemsdyk is quick to give the crown to Auston Matthews).

“JVR, for sure. He is good around the net,” Kadri says. “Anything in his direction, usually he is able to get a piece of. He works on it all the time, and it’s part of what makes him the player that he is.”

Hot tip, kids: Work on your hot tips.

“Coordination is an important skill to have,” Kadri says. “Hockey is a game of timing. Tipping and redirecting pucks is a big part of that.”

2. Since turning pro, Ottawa’s Mark Stone has done something better than any other hockey player on the planet.

Take your puck.

Over the course of his four full campaigns with the Ottawa Senators, Stone has 380 takeaways in 282 games played, a rate of 1.35 steals per game. No other players come close to such a robbing spree.

Swiping pucks, Stone tells me, is something that became ingrained in him since childhood. Just cruising around Manitoba’s outdoor rinks, trying to pilfer the puck off his buddies, he’d always get it.

“It’s always been a tool I’ve had in the toolbox. Some guys are fast skaters. I have a good stick,” Stone explains.

“It’s more of an instinct. You can’t really work on it. You either have it or you don’t.”

Who else has it?

“Matthews, he’s got it — a really good stick on the back-check. [Pavel] Datsyuk had it. Guys are just fortunate enough to be good at it.”

Stone wants to pass his ability as more nature than nurture, but after we press him, he concedes that studying his opponents and the flow of the game helps him know where to go and how to position his stick. Not just in coach Guy Boucher’s video sessions but in his spare time as well.

“When you’re on the couch and have GameCenter, it’s hard not to throw a game on,” says Stone, who frequently flips to brother Michael’s Flames or the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I think a lot of kids who watch a lot of hockey are good with their stick on the ice. The guys at the top of that stat are guys who watch a lot of film and a lot of games and learning from other players.”

For all the turmoil in Ottawa this season, Stone’s game has seemingly been immune. As hope crumbles around him, the winger has put up 28 points in his past 19 games, and this week spoke passionately about finishing strong — even if it harms the Sens’ lottery chances:

3. Florida’s hockey teams are a ridiculous 16-0-2 in their past 18 games combined.

The Panthers have built on the nine wins they piled up in February and remain undefeated in regulation in March (5-0-1).

Look out. The Cats trail Columbus by just two points for the East’s final wild-card spot and hold three games in hand. It’s a toss-up. If they squeeze in, a Tampa-Florida first-round series — an unprecedented intrastate match-up — would provide a delicious antidote for the club’s attendance and marketing struggles.

With the inordinate amount of roster turnover Florida endured over the summer, we wondered if all the fresh faces would’ve served as an advantage for coach Bob Boughner, being a new guy himself.

“I think it might’ve been a bit of a disadvantage at the beginning of the season,” Boughner counters.

“It took us some time out of the gate to get adjusted to new staff, new systems. I think if you look at month-to-month with this hockey team, we’ve steadily improved. That has a lot to do with getting comfortable with the environment we’re trying to provide these guys.

“We’re in the right direction. We’re in the thick of it right now. We have games in hand. We know how important those are. Every night is a battle for us.”

4. In his 12 seasons as a pro, four with Washington, Brent Johnson served as a backup (less than 40 games played) for 11 of them.

Johnson gave this thoughtful take on the Braden Holtby dilemma via a 13-part Twitter burst Thursday. Love the insight.

After getting yanked (again) in Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to Anaheim, Holtby has now taken the L in seven of his past eight starts.

“Holts hasn’t lost a lot of games in a row since I’ve been here,” says coach Barry Trotz, temporarily leaning on Philipp Grubauer.

“It’s difficult because you’re going into uncharted waters and you’re wondering if it’s you, if it’s the team. You’re looking for answers, and sometimes the answers are just right there. You’ve got to just dial yourself in, don’t doubt yourself and also just go out and almost steal one.”

5. In his social-media novella, Johnson also refers to the workload of Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will break the Lightning franchise record for wins in a season. He doesn’t mention Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, who has faced more shots (1,895) than anyone and is on pace to start an NHL-high 68 games.

The great Dane has had his name pop in and out of the Vezina chatter, but his save percentage is a rather pedestrian .910 since the beginning of February and he got pulled for the first time Saturday.

Johnson won’t be surprised to hear that Andersen refuses to say he’s tired or that the workload is too weighty. The Leafs’ Number 1 did admit Wednesday that post-game sleep can be challenging.

“A lot of players struggle with that. Your adrenaline is going. You’re thinking about the game. It can be good or bad. You’re trying to decompress, and it can take longer sometimes. That’s when you work some people so you can sleep better,” Andersen said.

“Is it harder to fall asleep after a win or a loss?” we ask.

“That’s a tough question. It can be both. Some games there’s something you wanted to do different. You can’t do that. It’s too late. For example, [Monday’s loss in] Buffalo was a game where there’s not much you can do different. You’re just trying to keep yourself sane. I think it’s actually easier to digest that one and get over it, because at the end of the day, if you did what you could, sometimes it’s going to go your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Just the goals, four hitting someone and bouncing in. I’d rather that happen now than in a couple months here.”

The notion that Babcock might give Andersen extra rest and Curtis McElhinney some bonus starts this month feels farfetched.

“I keep hearing he’s playing all these games, but I just look at the schedule and the spacing. He gets some good breaks, too,” the coach said of Andersen.

“To me, it’s real simple: You want to play all the games or not? I’ve never ever seen a guy who said, ‘Can I sit out one more, Coach?’ “

Holtby never asked to sit, either.

6. Here lies Marc Crawford, the dummy who didn’t choose Wayne Gretzky in the shootout.

Crawford, perhaps accurately, predicting his gravestone’s epitaph is just one of the memorable moments from The Nagano Tapes, a new documentary that digs into the story behind the Team Czech Republic’s hockey upset at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

Interviews with figures from all sides of the tournament — Dominik Hašek, Jaromir Jágr, Petr Svoboda, Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros, Brett Hull, Alexei Yashin, and Crawford — give the Five Rings Films project a well-rounded perspective.

Jagr and Hasek, predictably, steal the show. Watch the full film here. Good stuff.

7. How cool is it that young Patrik Laine (39 goals) and forever-second-fiddle Evgeni Malkin (38) are giving Alex Ovechkin (40) a real run for the Rocket Richard Trophy?

Something tells us Ovie will hold off his challengers, though. Teammate T.J. Oshie is a believer.

“I need to write out a statement for you [media] guys because I’ve been asked this question a lot here lately,” Oshie said after Ovechkin hit 40 for the ninth time.

“I don’t think you can be surprised by anything he does or surpasses or any type of way he scores goals because it feels like he’s done it every way and he does it every way consistently.

“So for him to get 40 again… there’s just no other guy that I’ve seen like him.”

8. Cup cakes are so trendy these days…

9. Defence prospect Rinat Valiev hadn’t weaseled into an NHL lineup in the past two seasons with the Maple Leafs.

It didn’t take long for him to get the call up once he became property of the Montreal Canadiens as part of the Tomas Plekanec deadline deal.

“What I see in practice is a good skill level, a good skater. He has a lot of upside to him,” coach Claude Julien told reporters.

Valiev revealed that he requested a trade from the Leafs.

Nice to see him get a big-league shot. Awful that he suffered a leg injury Thursday, in just his second game.

10. Regarding the NHLPA players’ poll released Wednesday, Toronto’s Morgan Rielly says ballots were cast months ago, during an early-season meeting with PA honcho Donald Fehr.

“There’s lots of questions that are tough that you have to think about,” Rielly said, “because they do have value. When the polls are released, they’re a big deal. Guys look at them so you want to give honest answers.”

Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom was voted most under-rated by his peers, but the Capitals’ top centre didn’t get Rielly’s vote.

“I put Brownie [teammate Connor Brown],” Rielly says. “He was right beside me when I was doing it. But I stand by that.”

11. Canada was mostly oblivious, but among hockey fans in the U.S., it did not go unnoticed that NBC cut away from its live broadcast of Saturday’s Leafs-Capitals Stadium Series game with about four minutes still remaining in regulation.

Granted, the game itself was a 5-2 wash and an accidental power outage caused a 15-minute delay in the third period. But for a league that has struggled to gain traction with large national audiences south of the border, getting preempted so the local news can be tucked in before Saturday Night Live is not a good look.

The game’s 8 p.m. start time was pushed due to expanded ceremonies, and the unusual circumstances around outdoor games invariably make them run longer (extra shovel breaks, fireworks, long walks to the dressing rooms).

There’s an easy fix. Drop the puck at 7 p.m. or even 7:30 p.m. ET.

Imagine the uproar if the feed was redirected to NBCSN during a thrilling 3-on-3 overtime or, worse, during an NFL game.

12. Jamie Benn scoring goals and celebrating like the lead guitarist is making hockey parents all over hate him for quadrupling their kids’ stick budgets and bruising their thighs.

But still: Pretty badass.

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